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Tech & Innovation | October 12, 2015

The Internet is the backbone of the devices through which we lead our lives. We rely on our smartphones to keep us connected and our laptops to keep us productive. Internet of Things, or IoT, is a proposed development of the Internet in which everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to collect and exchange data. IoT allows objects to be sensed and controlled remotely across existing network infrastructure, creating opportunities for more direct integration between the physical world and computer-based systems. IoT is not a new concept. It is a continuation of a process, and the catalyst of a dramatic shift that’s happening slowly. There is no confining the Internet to our laptops, as the Internet has already moved from our computers to the objects all around us.

The purpose of IoT is to make everything fully connected. IoT is about greater efficiency in terms of energy and artificial intelligence; the difficulty with enacting this model is that we have a lot of devices, but they are unconnected. In this line of thinking, wearables, such as a Fitbit or smartwatches, are not totally in line with the larger aspirations of the budding IoT movement. For example, a smartwatch is just one extra device that connects fitness and health, with many of the same applications that are already built into our smart phones. IoT, by contrast, is trying to truly integrate our lives with our devices, which is much more difficult than simply marketing novel devices. For this reason, it will take a long time for IoT to become a widespread concept.

In 2015, the largest platforms for IoT are smart homes, buildings, and businesses. In the home, a fully connected IoT system would include all appliances connected to a central automated system. The biggest example would be a centralized light and heating system. The IoT platform would learn the habits of the people living in the home: turning lights off when not in use, lowering heating when the house is empty, and randomizing lights when inhabitants are gone for extended periods of time in order to prevent theft. IoT home applications are not about the convenience of one device. Rather, they are meant to improve efficiency. A skyscraper office building with IoT capability could drop heating levels when the building is at full capacity in response to the body heat that lowers the level of heating required. Many offices already require employees to use access cards when entering the office building, meaning that the system is already in place to determine building capacity.

Industry is currently the largest platform for IoT. For example, factories could use IoT to save millions by connecting all aspects of production and machinery on a cloud system that runs analysis on how to optimize production and efficiency. British Petroleum is currently partnering with GE’s Predix data gathering platform to connect 650 wells to an IoT system, putting them at the forefront of the field. Each well has up to 30 sensors that measure pressure and temperature, among other data. The information collected will allow BP to plan more efficient extractions, predict well flows, and prevent down time.

IoT applications have also emerged within the retail, transport, and health care fields. In retail, an IoT system would allow stores to connect the tracking devices already placed on many articles of clothing. Tracking purchases would enable data collection on what was in stores and what consumers were interested in. In terms of transport, there are already cars on the road that have assisted parking and artificial intelligence systems. Installing IoT in the fleets of trucking companies would simplify monitoring truck location, car temperature, and shipment tracking. It is possible that companies would not want to accept shipments of produce from trucks where the temperature inside the truck was significantly lower than industry and health code standards. Furthermore, IoT could simplify health care and long-term patient care. Wearables given to patients after surgery would allow doctors to monitor biometrics from afar and reduce the number of hospital visits after a patient is discharged.

Despite the clear industrial and societal benefits, there are two main issues with IoT: privacy and security. However many privacy settings you have, it’s a fact that the more things that are connected to the internet, the more data is collected about you. How much do we want companies to know? How much data can or should they have access to? If companies start venturing into the IoT field with no regulations, personal privacy could be compromised. It is true that the purpose of IoT is optimization, efficiency, and ultimately, personalization. However, there must be some limits. Companies with high levels of captured data could inevitably practice price discrimination. For example, energy companies could charge more for heating when they know that consumers will have larger energy use based on collected data.

And while it is one thing for a company to have access to some data for personalization purposes, large amounts of data should not be accessible to everyone. The more data streams, the more vulnerable your information becomes. An overarching conversation in the IoT field is cloud security, as data collected will likely move to cloud storage systems hosted online. Another aspect of security is company specialization. With so many companies attempting to gain access to the IoT fields, there are many products with different automated systems. An air sensor could have one automated system, but its security could very likely not align with another company’s security. Companies have to work together to figure out industry-wide standards. However, the more people that have access to these security codes and standards, the more comprised the system becomes, and the more difficult it may be to set up a single, universal system.

The issues with IoT are important to consider, and are not going anywhere fast. The transition to these fully connected systems is not going to happen as soon as people think. Although IoT is currently at the top of the hype bubble, it is unlikely that we will see many of these applications for another few years. If IoT happens right, it could be a great thing. We could see reduced waste, a decrease in use of raw materials, and more efficient industry standards. The rise of IoT ultimately depends on which companies enter the industry, the success of their products, and which aspects of IoT hit the main stream first.